Facilitating adult learning in Christian higher education in South Africa

Updated: Feb 8

by Dr. Arthur Alard, principal and president, International College of Bible and Missions

Editor’s note: Entrust staff members Dr. Arthur Alard and his wife Dr. Olga Alard, along with Dr. Stephen Briix, serve in varied capacities at ICBM. ICBM is one of Entrust’s ministry partners, representing just one of our formal church leadership training settings.

Facilitating adult learning in the formal educational setting of International College of Bible and Missions here in Johannesburg, South Africa, is different than doing the same in an informal setting like a church. One context is for academic credit and the other is not. The outcomes differ for each context.

At ICBM, the teacher facilitates the student’s learning with the expectation that certain academic skills were developed prior to the students’ entering the program or module. Educational prerequisites guide our students’ development toward competency from one module to the next, and from one program to the next. This academic scaffolding is designed into the curriculum so that students develop competencies to accomplish program outcomes.

The benefit of offering formal training is that the students’ academic achievements are recorded and recognized both nationally and internationally. ICBM was established to equip those called of God for ministry.


Admission requirements

ICBM, Johannesburg, South Africa

National Qualifications Framework academic levels are set by the South African Qualifications Authority. A student entering our Higher Certificate program must have obtained a matric certificate (high school diploma or equivalent) at the NQF 4 level in order to move to the next NQF 5 level, which is either the Higher Certificate or the first year of the BA degree program. However, students may only enter the BA degree program if they have also obtained a matric exemption/endorsement into the degree program.

For example, a student who does not qualify academically to enter directly into our BA degree program still has a path toward his or her educational goals in the Higher Certificate program. This program plays a very important role, serving as an academic bridge for the student to demonstrate that they have the academic competencies to move from the NQF 5 level into the BA degree, which is at the NQF 7 level. Most of our students qualify for direct entry into the BA degree program.

ICBM offers three programs: Higher Certificate in Theology (NQF level 5), BA in Theology (NQF level 7) and BA Honours in Theology (NQF level 8). The first two are undergraduate programs and the NQF 8 level is a postgraduate program — a more research focused program preparing students for specialized ministry and further academic studies for masters and doctoral programs at other accredited institutions.

Redressing the legacy of apartheid

In addition, we are allowed to enroll up to 10% of Recognition of Prior Learning applicants per academic year. The RPL policy has been a great blessing to many pastors who have served in ministry for years but were never able to access formal biblical training. In order to redress the legacy of apartheid, the RPL policy was introduced by SAQA to grant certain students access to higher education. An RPL applicant’s age is taken into consideration, as well as years of experience in ministry and whether they have formal and/or informal training. The applicant compiles a portfolio of evidence which the ICBM admissions committee evaluates in determining whether to admit the applicant. We are honored to be used by God to facilitate training for these pastors, for the ministry they have been called to do.

ICBM facilitates learning for students who come from various backgrounds, some through normal academic path and others through RPL.

Addressing educational needs

When students come through the RPL path, it is our responsibility to assist them by first understanding what their learning gaps are, so that we can provide the necessary support they require to be successful in their studies at ICBM. All our new students take two entrance tests. One of these tests their level of English competency. This is particularly important for those students for whom English is not their first language; it may be their third or even sixth language. (South Africa has 11 official languages.) The other test is to determine their computer literacy skills. These tests help ICBM determine whether the student requires the English Competency module and/or the Computer Literacy module before being admitted into the academic program.


We benefit from having ICBM graduates who are also, by profession, teachers. These alumni are a great help in teaching the English Competency modules. We have also benefitted from the Entrust STEP* program through which intern Shannon Roach came to tutor students in English language skills. We look forward to welcoming more such interns to serve our students, assisting them in both English and computer skills. We are also blessed by Mr. Mark Qualls, our new ICBM IT manager, who will develop a new Computer Literacy module for students.

Student support and training

BA Honours group discussions

Many of our students also serve as full-time or part-time pastors with churches in communities that often cannot afford to provide the salary needed to sustain pastors and their families. In these cases, the student might also have a full-time job from which to earn an income. These circumstances factor in to how we ultimately provide student support and identify students who are high risk. There are those who sometimes do not balance their family, ministry, work and study schedule well. Time management is one of the first topics students are taught when they register for their first College Life Skills module.

With our constituency in mind, we have designed our training to suit the needs of our students. We offer classes on Saturdays for students who work during the week. In addition to weekday classes, some part-time and full-time students also take evening classes on Thursdays. Full-time students would normally complete their BA degree in three years, although some who are forced to study part-time might take up to six years to complete their degree.

Full-time students normally take a load of three or four 8-credit hour modules per term. A full-time student with four modules (32 credits) must schedule 320 hours over the nine weeks of the term. Some students do this well while others struggle to maintain a healthy balance. This unfortunately is how many end up in the at-risk group. Our registrar, Mrs. Anne Forsyth, and our dean of students, Mr. Patrick Nanthambwe, play important roles in identifying and developing a plan of action to support students who are at risk of failing.

The same principle applies to students who are doing their studies part-time and can only take two modules per term on Saturdays. We have a very high regard for our students who are working, serving in ministry, have family responsibilities, and are studying. The perseverance that we see and the faith they have in the Lord’s provision for them to study is very encouraging.

We value contact sessions with our students, where we learn so much about and from them, about their family and ministry contexts. We endeavor to facilitate discussions and presentations in our modules; methods which demonstrate students’ development of certain competencies that are part of the module outcomes.

Students demonstrate that they have accomplished the outcomes for a module by doing weekly homework assignments designed to prepare them for the next class session. Among the class activities the students seem to love the most are the discussion sessions where students are encouraged to come together in groups to discuss various topics and then present their findings to the class.

Faculty training using E-learning platform Edbrite

Students have other assignments as part of their continuous formative assessment, which may include group projects, presentations, scripture memory, critical book reviews or articles. They are also required, depending on the module, to teach a 15-minute lesson, preach a sermon, write a research paper or do an exam, all part of their summative assessments.

COVID-19 impact

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the dynamics of contact learning were for the most part lost. Many of our students are only able to study in contact mode because they do not have access to the internet, nor do they have their own devices. They are dependent on using the computers and internet at the library on our ICBM campus. Throughout 2020, we were able to stay connected with 58 of our students who did have access to the internet and had their own devices. We were able to facilitate learning with those students through Zoom class meetings and maintained contact through what the Council on Higher Education calls online emergency remote learning.


Dr. Stephen Briix facilitating faculty meeting and training via Zoom

This has been our new normal, which has caused us to consider how we might develop blended learning programs to continue meeting the training needs of all our students — those who need contact and those who prefer both contact and online learning. This task is spearheaded by our academic dean, Dr. Stephen Briix.

We thank God for the 30 students that we graduated virtually in June 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Our desire is to see all our students mature in their walk with the Lord and carry on the same equipping of the faithful to proclaim Christ to the world.

*Serving to Equip People, Entrust’s short-term and internship program

Taking into account the processes in place at ICBM, consider these application questions for you and your ministry, be it a small group, church, parachurch ministry or formal learning institution.

  1. What do you know about the educational background and learning needs of the people you serve?

  2. How might you further discover some of their specific learning needs?

  3. How do you assess the learning progress of those you serve?

  4. What might be some obstacles to learning for the people you serve?

  5. How might you and your ministry team help to mitigate some of those obstacles?



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